Okinawa 50 years since his return: Koza steakhouse owner recounts his life with American troops

Seiji Tokutomi talks to a student about the history of Koza in Okinawa City, Okinawa Prefecture in March. (Japan News-Yomiuri)

NAHA, Japan – Okinawan’s culture of eating steak was initially fostered in the Koza area of ​​Okinawa City, which sits right next to the U.S. Kadena Air Force Base.

A 77-year-old man who ran a steak restaurant in Koza for many years and contributed to steak culture, now tells tourists the story of coexistence between American troops and Japanese citizens.

Seiji Tokutomi took over the steakhouse in 1972, when Okinawa was returned to Japan, and kept it open until he closed it about 15 years ago due to his wife’s illness. He said his relationship with the US military cannot be described solely in terms of base approval or disapproval.

At the end of March, Tokutomi spoke to a 24-year-old student on the street where his restaurant was located. A graduate student from a university in Tokyo, she was visiting Okinawa to study its food culture.

Tokutomi has been a city guide for about 10 years, commissioned by the Okinawa City Tourism and Product Promotion Association. He was asked to share the real voices of people who lived next to the base. About once or twice a month he tells tourists and school trip students stories about the city.

That day, Tokutomi talked about an episode in which he was invited to the base by a member of the American service who was a regular customer of his. The soldier went to the front during the Vietnam War. Tokutomi watched him cry as he flew away.

“I learned that people were not only disgusted by the behavior of American soldiers, but also had a heart-to-heart with them,” the student said.

Tokutomi was born on Kikaijima Island in the Amami Islands of Kagoshima Prefecture. Her uncle, who worked in a restaurant in the United States, moved to Okinawa after World War II to open his own restaurant. Tokutomi’s family also moved there, so that his father could help his uncle.

Tokutomi’s father also opened a restaurant as a branch of the family business, and while still a high school student, he began helping his father chop wood to cook meat.

At that time, American troops were only allowed to enter stores that had an A sign, indicating that the restaurant met the strict sanitary standards of the American forces. Tokutomi’s restaurant was to be equipped with flush toilets and other amenities. In the 1960s, when Okinawa was a Vietnam War sortie site, Koza was so prosperous it was said to be “raining dollars.”

The U.S. military came to his restaurant late at night with hostesses, and the fried chicken for a take-out bag was a big-selling item.

“I was making $2,000 a day at a time when a 300 gram steak cost less than a dollar,” Tokutomi said.

The mood among the American troops, which had previously been calm, changed dramatically after the start of the Vietnam War.

“Fighting and people having dinner and rushing around became a constant,” Tokutomi said.

After removing empty plates from service members’ tables, they sometimes claimed they hadn’t eaten when they had to pay the bill.

Even though the business was doing well, he was frustrated, even though he kept it to himself.

Around 1970, resentment over the crashes caused by American troops began to flare among the locals.

During the Koza riot in December that year, watching the crowd burn a military officer’s car, Tokutomi said he felt something like satisfaction.

The policy at the time was that part of the land for the bases would be returned to Okinawa when Okinawa was returned to Japan. That’s why he had mixed feelings about returning to Japan.

“On the one hand, I hoped to have less bad feelings, but when it comes to business, I was against returning,” Tokutomi said.

With the return to Japan, the clientele has changed radically. First, the number of tourists from other parts of Japan increased, and after 1980 the city filled with families from the wider Okinawa Prefecture on weekends. At that time, the per capita income of residents of the prefecture was about three times higher than it was when Okinawa returned to Japan.

“I was happy to see the evidence of the increasing affluence of people in the prefecture,” Tokutomi said.

Steak restaurants have spread throughout the prefecture and have become a staple of Okinawa tourism. According to the Council of Okinawan Steak House, there were 10.78 steak restaurants per 100,000 people in May last year, three times the national average.

Through his activities as a guide, Tokutomi feels that the young people who listen to him understand the unique relationship he has had with the American bases.

“The Okinawans have made a living dealing with American soldiers. Koza is an area that represents their resilience,” Tokutomi said. “I hope Koza will continue to be a city that values ​​its culture.”

Comments are closed.